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Set to make a decision this week on whether to return to the Statehouse in person or continue working remotely, Vermont lawmakers on Monday heard testimony from an infectious disease expert who said the Legislature’s proposed plans for Covid protocols are similar to those being taken in health care settings.
Lawmakers had planned to return in person to Montpelier for 2022’s session — until one week before the session began, when the Joint Rules Committee pulled back. Citing still-rising Covid cases and the prominence of the highly contagious Omicron variant, they moved to work remotely for at least the first two weeks.
The clock is ticking for the House, which needs to return to Montpelier next week, unless its members pass another resolution extending their remote work period. Under its current rules, the Senate can remain remote until Feb. 25 at the latest.
Upon last week’s vote to go remote, some House members insisted that legislative work is done best and most transparently in person, and vowed to vote against any future remote work resolutions. Legislative leaders said they would use the first two weeks of the session to find a path forward with the goal of returning to in-person work, based on testimony from health care experts.
In December, the Joint Rules Committee had agreed upon a plan for in-person legislating, including mandatory Covid vaccines or weekly PCR testing for all legislators and staffers, mandatory masking for everyone regardless of vaccination status, and recommended rapid testing for anyone coming into the building.
The Joint Rules Committee did not put forward a new plan of action or take any votes on Monday, but members heard from Cindy Noyes, an infectious disease doctor with the University of Vermont Medical Center. Noyes described to lawmakers the Covid protections in place at UVMMC, many of which mirrored those passed by the same committee in December.
Based on contact tracing of workers at her hospital, Noyes said she is confident the protocols — especially vaccines and universal masking — are effective, even if not foolproof. With high vaccination rates and stringent mask use, Noyes said the most risky activity in the Statehouse would be eating near one another in the cafeteria.
Noyes said that KN95s and N95s are the most effective masks, and that disposable, surgical masks are better than those made of cloth. Health care workers at her hospital tend to wear surgical masks on a regular basis, and upgrade to an N95s if they’re working with Covid patients.
Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, proposed supplying every lawmaker, staffer and visitor to the Capitol with a surgical mask upon entry.
“One of the gifts of the federal government has been giving us money, so it's not like we don't have the money for that,” she said.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said at the conclusion of Monday’s hearing that Noyes’ testimony prompted her to want to reexamine the Statehouse’s masking and contact tracing policies to see if they can be bolstered. She’d also like to increase safety measures in the cafeteria and allow lawmakers an option to participate remotely even after an in-person return, she said. She said she would conduct “individual check-ins” with members of the Joint Rules Committee before their next meeting this week.
Asked by Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, whether Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine had been invited to testify to the committee, Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham said no, but they could see if he is available this week.
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